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Tragedy at Beechcroft

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Fielding, A - Tragedy at Beechcroft (1935)


"Five Red Herrings? Only FIVE?", one can imagine A Fielding exclaiming in disapproval of another writer's work. "Why, I have dozens of red herrings!" And so she does. Tragedy at Beechcroft is a monument to misdirection. Red herrings pile up in crateloads until the reader is no longer sure whether murder was actually done at all. Luckily Inspector Pointer -- a dogged investigator -- is there to sort things out.


Beechcroft is, of course, a country house. The permanent residents are Major Moncrieff and his wife Lavinia, their adopted twin nieces Dilly and Dolly, the twins' governess Ann Bladeshaw and assorted nannies, parlourmaids and discreet servants who Know Their Place, with the exception of an upstart and highly suspicious chauffeur called Evans. Dilly and Dolly are drawn well and amusingly, and they are Not Heiresses; this point is made so often and with such vigour at the start of the book that the reader will immediately draw their own conclusion from it.


Major Moncrieff has been Acting Strangely, pursuing his mother-in-law around the table and having strange convulsions of anger which seem out of place in a well-bred household; so the mother-in-law, Mrs Phillimore, enlists the services of the painter Oliver Santley to go down and find out why. She also rustles up Victor Goodenough, a hanger-on of Ann's, and the painter Flavelle Bruton. Flavelle, in turn, recruits a Spanish bullfighter -- not an ordinary bullfighter, mind you, but one who fights sitting down -- and this motley army of investigators descends on Beechcroft to sponge off the Moncrieffs. There is also a follower of Lavinia's called Pusey and a character called Ayres whose role in the book is to provide comic relief, plus a couple of highly suspicious missionaries who appear to be unfamiliar with the Old Testament and completely unacquainted with the Bishop of Polynesia.


So we have suspicious missionaries, a suspicious chauffeur, a suspicious householder, two suspiciously impecunious twins and a suspicious tramp seen receiving money from Major Moncrieff in the park. It's wholly unsurprising when Lavinia is stabbed to death during a conjuring show, and Major Moncrieff is found in a locked room with a bullet through his brain. Flavelle Bruton joins the suspicious crew when she is seen casting hostile glances at the Major and a voodoo doll representing him is found in her studio. Top marks to Inspector Pointer, by the way, for instantly recognising the identity of a small wax effigy from the features of a man he had only seen once -- and dead, at that.


The suspects show the usual thick-headed reluctance to tell the police anything that might have any bearing at all on the case. Santley fails to mention the episode of the stolen chocolates and the two nocturnal prowlers. Mrs Phillimore is conveniently run over by a bus when her revelations might have hastened the conclusion. The chauffeur absconds and sends his wife flowers. The mysterious tramp reappears. And guess what! After fifteen chapters of outright denial, it turns out that Dilly and Dolly will inherit money after all! Perhaps that will compensate them for losing both their parents and their guardians to violent death. Or perhaps not; nobody seems to care, not even the twins themselves. Inspector Pointer foils a kidnap attempt with the help of the AA man, and we are in at last for one of the longest and dullest denouments in detective fiction.


Despite it all, Tragedy at Beechcroft is surprisingly readable. The characters fill out their impossible roles with vigour and charm, and Inspector Pointer joins in like a holiday-camp supervisor running a jolly game of charades. The book stands as a monument to one style of detective fiction, taken to its wildest extreme, but more or less carried off. For sheer inventiveness Fielding is hard to beat. All this and the Crolls-Boyce car company too!


Tragedy at Beechcroft is available for download from Gutenberg Australia.



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